Grass Hoppers

George and May Southgate patented these rather alarming “jumping shoes” in 1922. Each is a giant replica of Schistocerca americana made of spring steel and secured by a strap over a child’s shoe.

“He will spring or jump much farther than he would be able to without our improved device; and furthermore, the shock upon the system when alighting will be greatly reduced, thus enabling the user to cover considerable ground with a minimum effort.”

This will all end in litigation, but in the meantime “the flapping of the wings will greatly increase the enjoyment of the users.”

Lifeboats for All

In 1993, I attended a technology and art conference, ‘Ars Electronica,’ in Linz, Austria, where my former postdoctoral student Pattie Maes gave a talk titled ‘Why Immortality Is a Dead Idea.’ She took as many people as she could find who had publicly predicted downloading of consciousness into silicon, and plotted the dates of their predictions, along with when they themselves would turn seventy years old. Not too surprisingly, the years matched up for each of them. Three score and ten years from their individual births, technology would be ripe for them to download their consciousness into a computer. Just in the nick of time! They were each, in their own minds, going to be remarkably lucky, to be in just the right place at the right time.

— MIT roboticist Rodney Brooks, Flesh and Machines, 2003

The Halkett Boat

Royal Navy officer Peter Halkett designed this lightweight “boat cloak” in 1844. When deflated, its hull could be worn as a cloak, the oar used as a walking stick, and the sail as an umbrella, but a portable bellows could inflate it in four minutes into a craft that could carry eight people.

Explorer John Richardson, who had nearly died of hypothermia trying to cross an arctic river during John Franklin’s disastrous Coppermine Expedition of 1819, wrote that “Had we been possessed of such a contrivance in our first expedition, I have little doubt of our having brought the whole party in safely.” But the navy saw no use for Halkett’s boats, and his efforts to promote them to outdoorsmen similarly failed. The two remaining specimens reside in museums.

Posture Guard

This “scholar’s shoulder brace,” patented by Isidor Keller in 1884, is advertised as “a brace for supporting the shoulders in writing”:

In using my shoulder-brace, I propose to secure the bracket A on a school-desk, as shown in Figs. 1 and 3, then I adjust the standard B to suit the scholar occupying the seat in front of said desk, and finally I pass the loops f f of the shoulder-straps over the shoulders of the scholar, and adjust said loops so as to retain the scholar in a position that will not be injurious to the health or to the eyes.

What if there’s a fire?


William Lance invented this “improved serving table” in 1866. It bears a set of food-laden shelves that revolve continuously past the diners, driven by steam. The shelves are “so loaded with viands, to move at the rate of fifteen or twenty feet per minute, or to pass before each guest at such speed as to exhibit before each guest the entire bill of fare once per minute, giving each one ample opportunity to help him or herself to such viands as may suit their tastes.”

“All persons at this table are put upon an equality and free to act for themselves, and these shelves so arranged as not only to contain the full bill of fare, and that kept hot by lamp or otherwise, but also to contain all the necessary dishes, knives, forks, spoons, glasses, &c.”

The attendant in the hidden “pantry” at the bottom replenishes the offerings and discreetly removes dirty dishes from the bottom shelf, where they’re left by departing diners. Lance estimates that such a table might serve 150 diners with only two attendants, “except those required in the pantry to put away the last dishes of each guest and brush off the crumbs and adjust the chair.”

In a Word

n. baldness

One wonders if there’s a personal story behind this “method of concealing partial baldness,” patented by Donald and Frank Smith in 1977. The hair is grown to a length of 3 or 4 inches, divided into equal portions, and brushed over the bald area, using hair spray to hold it in place. “By lightly sweeping the hair into the desired style as the hair spray dries, an appearance of a full head of hair is given.”

Rest Easy

Henry Bourne patented this combination mattress and life preserver in 1840. Essentially it’s an ordinary berth mattress split in two; each half is filled with broken cork and waterproofed, and then the two are reattached and fitted with leggings, an oar, and two shoulder straps.

If your ship is sinking, you leap out of bed, stuff the mattress with “papers, moneys, clothes, and provisions for many days,” pull the straps over your shoulders, and jump overboard. When you’re in the water the buoyant mattress keeps you afloat, the waterproofing keeps your valuables dry, and you can navigate using the oar. Thanks to the leggings, when you reach the shore you can waddle up the beach “beyond the reach of the returning wave.”

For the Inexpressive

Johnathan Crawford’s “facial muscles exercise mask,” patented in 1987, is a plastic face mask with an inflatable lining “which provides the resistive force for the facial muscles to work against.”

Strap the mask to your face, inflate it to the desired pressure, and exercise your face against the mask’s resistance. When the timer goes off you can gauge your progress using the attached “calorie-estimating device.” (The patent abstract includes instructions for exercising the brow, eyebrow, eye, nose, lip and mouth.) Just don’t answer the door while you’re doing it.

Interestingly, in discussing prior art Crawford notes that someone had patented an earlier facial exercise mask that contained weights to provide resistance. He notes that one disadvantage of this scheme is “the potential for causing bruises to the wearer’s facial tissues with the weights smashed against them for effectiveness.” Fair point.

The Nyctograph
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Lewis Carroll was a poor sleeper and did a lot of thinking in bed. The notes he made in the dark often turned out to be illegible the next day, but he didn’t want to go to the trouble of lighting a lamp in order to scribble a few lines.

So in 1891 he invented the nyctograph, a card containing a grid of cells that could guide his writing in the dark, using a peculiar alphabet he invented for the purpose:

carroll nyctograph alphabet

“I tried rows of square holes,” he wrote, “each to hold one letter (quarter of an inch square I found a very convenient size), but the letters were still apt to be illegible. Then I said to myself, ‘Why not invent a square alphabet, using only dots at the corners, and lines along the sides?’ I soon found that, to make the writing easy to read, it was necessary to know where each square began. This I secured by the rule that every square-letter should contain a large black dot in the N.W. corner. … [I] succeeded in getting 23 of [the square letters] to have a distinct resemblance to the letters they were to represent.”

“All I have now to do, if I wake and think of something I wish to record, is to draw from under the pillow a small memorandum book containing my Nyctograph, write a few lines, or even a few pages, without even putting the hands outside the bed-clothes, replace the book, and go to sleep again. Think of the number of lonely hours a blind man often spends doing nothing, when he would gladly record his thoughts, and you will realise what a blessing you can confer on him by giving him a small ‘indelible’ memorandum-book, with a piece of paste-board containing rows of square holes, and teaching him the square-alphabet.”

Air Traffic

In 1963, New York inventor Einar Einarsson quietly patented a flying car.

The patent abstract is only two pages long. “The car, after traveling on land, may be easily converted for air travel by removing the stabilizers and wings and placing them in position on the outside of the vehicle. The road wheels may be raised and the propellers are now in position for operation. By suitable adjustment of the wings the car can take off, and when in the air the wings are further adjusted for cruising speed.”

I wonder if he built a prototype …